ILNews

Tug-of-war

Michael W. Hoskins
October 28, 2009
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Juvenile Justice

Bonaventura/PayneLake Superior Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura recently found herself doing what no other Indiana juvenile judge had done previously. She phoned the state’s Department of Child Services and asked Director James Payne, himself a former juvenile court judge, for permission to place a child outside Indiana. He reviewed the case and granted her request.

But that instance isn’t what bothers Judge Bonaventura or her colleagues throughout the state; it’s that they’re forced to seek permission at all.

An unexpected, last-minute change in a bill during the 2009 special session stripped away much of the juvenile judges’ decision-making discretion for placements outside Indiana, and now all three government branches are reacting to how and why that happened and whether it strengthens or hinders Indiana’s juvenile justice system.

“This used to be a judicial decision, but now it’s an executive department decision,” said Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge John Baker, who recently sat as a member of the legislative Commission on Courts as it examined this issue. “I wasn’t aware it was broken, or at least that there was a discussion outside the judiciary that it was broken.”

Special session surprise

With PL 182-2009(ss), Section 387, lawmakers amended Indiana Code §31-37-19-3(f) to require DCS recommendation or approval for any out-ofstate placement, or else the county must pay for placement. The change came after the Indiana Supreme Court in April ruled against the state agency and gave more deference to juvenile judges in making placement decisions when there’s a dispute about who should pay. Taking its case directly to the General Assembly, the DCS asked the lawmakers to tweak state statute and give it more control.
 

It's not the rightThe change happened without public discussion and surprised the judges, who were still reeling from sweeping statutory changes made a year earlier giving the DCS more authority over juvenile justice decisions and shifting some funding to the state.

The gamut of issues came up during the two Commission on Courts meetings in October, where all sides came together to discuss the issues and some even pointed out potential constitutional issues that could arise.

“It’s arrogant for judges to say or think that only judges can make those decisions and not the executive branch, but our state’s policy has been to leave it up to the judges and not have them second-guessed by the executive branch,” Chief Judge Baker said, making an observation in his role filling in for Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

Speaking about her experience in Lake County, Judge Bonaventura said all placements are about what’s best for children and families, and the judges work to keep juveniles inside the state as much as possible, as long as needs are met. But she doesn’t like the idea of singling out and treating juveniles differently based on placement. Doing so, she said, raises potential constitutional concerns â?? a separation of powers violation and questions about how the unrelated juvenile justice provision was lumped into a massive budget bill.

John PayneTippecanoe Juvenile Judge Loretta Rush, who chairs the Indiana Supreme Court’s Juvenile Justice Improvement Committee, told the interim legislative panel that all of the recent statutory changes negatively impact their ability to do their job effectively.

“These decisions (that judges make) weigh heavily on us, and it sets our juvenile justice system backward to take away this judicial discretion and place it with a state executive agency,” she said.

Opposing sides

Several commission members voiced their frustration about the last-minute change and said they didn’t know about the provision until it became law. After hearing from a handful of unhappy juvenile judges, the committee voted overwhelming to recommend that the General Assembly repeal that provision during the upcoming session.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, called the revision a “fiscally-based decision that wasn’t thought through.” Other lawmakers agreed and voiced similar concerns, saying they trusted the decisions Indiana juvenile judges have made and that there hasn’t been any rash of out-of-state placements about which the state should be concerned.

Chief Judge John Baker“I was totally unaware this was in the budget, and there ought to be a do-over,” said Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “This goes very much to the independence of our judiciary and who’s in the best position to decide what’s in the best interests of a child. I hope there would be extensive debate on this.”

The DCS director defended the law change that he’d specifically asked for during the special session, and Payne said the rationale is focused more on best practices than money.

“I’m not here to talk about money, but money is a part of this,” he told committee members. “We have the treatment programs here to adequately serve their needs, and keeping children close to home is a best practice and something this state can and should support.”

The agency’s main priority is to keep children close to home and “engage families” as much as possible, Payne said. Outof-state placement is used as a last resort, and research shows Indiana has the capacity to keep virtually every child here.

Nationally, many states are turning away from out-of-state placements, and more than half have limited them in order to keep juveniles close to home, Payne said. He presented lawmakers with a 2008 report from the non-profit group known as IARCCA, which describes itself as an Association of Children & Family Services, saying Hoosier judges have many in-state placement options and there’s a 30 percent bed capacity that remains open. He said Indiana could use existing resources to keep virtually every child within the state and serve them adequately.

But judges disputed the report, some saying that it doesn’t take into consideration that those facilities often decline to take a particular juvenile when they are asked to do so by a judge.

The decissionsDespite Payne’s insistence that judges can still make out-of-state placements without DCS approval, juvenile judges say their hands are tied because it’s a “pay to place” setup: If they don’t consult the DCS first, then the cash-strapped counties would have to find money to pay for the placement. That is difficult in tough economic times, but especially since another provision of the 2008 law change took away and transferred to the state the local county fund previously used to pay for those placements and services.

Judge Rush said she recently asked her county council to set aside money and devote a specific line item in the budget to use when the juvenile court disagrees with the DCS, but the county refused to do that.

St. Joseph Juvenile Judge Peter Nemeth criticized how the DCS operates and continues getting more authority to call the shots on juvenile offenders, delinquents, and Children In Need of Services. The agency, he said, often seems as though it’s metaphorically throwing darts at a dartboard without knowing any particulars about a child or family, and disregards recommendations by the key players and even its own local caseworkers.

“It’s not the right thing to do, and it certainly interferes with judges doing their job,” he said. “They want to look at a piece of paper to make decisions. ... Is that the way we want our justice system to operate for our kids and their families?”

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  1. I can understand a 10 yr suspension for drinking and driving and not following the rules,but don't you think the people who compleate their sentences and are trying to be good people of their community,and are on the right path should be able to obtain a drivers license to do as they please.We as a state should encourage good behavior instead of saying well you did all your time but we can't give you a license come on.When is a persons time served than cause from where I'm standing,its still a punishment,when u can't have the freedom to go where ever you want to in car,truck ,motorcycle,maybe their should be better programs for people instead of just throwing them away like daily trash,then expecting them to change because they we in jail or prison for x amount of yrs.Everyone should look around because we all pay each others bills,and keep each other in business..better knowledge equals better community equals better people...just my 2 cents

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  4. I expressed my thought in the title, long as it was. I am shocked that there is ever immunity from accountability for ANY Government agency. That appears to violate every principle in the US Constitution, which exists to limit Government power and to ensure Government accountability. I don't know how many cases of legitimate child abuse exist, but in the few cases in which I knew the people involved, in every example an anonymous caller used DCS as their personal weapon to strike at innocent people over trivial disagreements that had no connection with any facts. Given that the system is vulnerable to abuse, and given the extreme harm any action by DCS causes to families, I would assume any degree of failure to comply with the smallest infraction of personal rights would result in mandatory review. Even one day of parent-child separation in the absence of reasonable cause for a felony arrest should result in severe penalties to those involved in the action. It appears to me, that like all bureaucracies, DCS is prone to interpret every case as legitimate. This is not an accusation against DCS. It is a statement about the nature of bureaucracies, and the need for ADDED scrutiny of all bureaucratic actions. Frankly, I question the constitutionality of bureaucracies in general, because their power is delegated, and therefore unaccountable. No Government action can be unaccountable if we want to avoid its eventual degeneration into irrelevance and lawlessness, and the law of the jungle. Our Constitution is the source of all Government power, and it is the contract that legitimizes all Government power. To the extent that its various protections against intrusion are set aside, so is the power afforded by that contract. Eventually overstepping the limits of power eliminates that power, as a law of nature. Even total tyranny eventually crumbles to nothing.

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